The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

‘Even in death the boys were trouble.’

In the early 1960s, Elwood Curtis lives with his grandmother in Jim Crow-era Florida.  He’s done well at school, and one of his teachers encourages him to enrol in the free classes at a local colored college. To get to college, Elwood  hitches a ride.  This choice is enough to have Elwood sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called The Nickel Academy.  The Nickel Academy, according to its mission statement, provide ‘physical, intellectual and moral training’ so that the boys there can become ‘honorable and honest men’.

Fine words.  Reality at the Nickel Academy is very different.   Those that run the place are corrupt, the staff abuse the boys, food and supplies are diverted elsewhere. Boys who resist disappear. Elwood wants desperately to hang on to Martin Luther King’s assertion ‘Throw us in jail and we will still love you’, but, how can he?

‘He’d started the day in his old life and ended it here.’

Elwood makes a friend in the Nickel Academy, Turner, who has a far more realistic view of how to survive.  Turner isn’t interested in Martin Luther King’s ideals; he is interested in surviving in the world he is in.

Before Elwood ended up in the Nickel Academy, he had hopes and aspirations for the future.  He had triumphed over some early setbacks, but life had possibility for him.  Could he negotiate the pitfalls, the unspoken rules and unspeakable violence of the Nickel Academy?

‘His mind was still capable of travel.’

I don’t want to write more about the story because reading it is much more important than reading about it. And while this is a work of fiction, it was inspired by the true story of the Arthur G Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida.  This school only closed its doors in 2011 (after 111 years of operation).  Graves of those who died there are still being identified.

This is an unsettling novel to read. Much of the violence is understated, which makes it worse in my view.  Not because I want to read graphic accounts of violence but because understatement enables detachment from the horror of it. Those who leave can never really escape. Read it, and weep.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith